Recruitment: Why are charities struggling to fill roles, and what can be done?

19 Aug 2022 In-depth

Charities and sector bodies are warning that recruitment is becoming increasingly difficult, with many voluntary organisations struggling to fill roles or retain staff. 

There are myriad reasons for these issues, and reverberations are being felt throughout the sector. 

It may well be that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic combined with rising living costs has meant some are leaving the sector. Indeed, one in seven charity sector workers are paid below the real living wage, according to a recent report by the Living Wage Foundation

A recent Pro Bono Economics analysis found that year-on-year realised wage growth was up 5.6% for businesses, but only 3.8% for charities, with neither keeping up with inflation. It advised that increasing pay is one of the ways organisations could “gain a competitive edge in this battle for talent”.

Recent DCMS figures also showed the proportion of workers in the charity sector from ethnic minority backgrounds has decreased, while representation in the wider UK economy has risen.

Staffing problems are nonetheless also being felt across other industries – it is not wholly a charity sector issue. 

Indeed, the British Chambers of Commerce recently revealed recruitment problems are at record levels as three out of four companies struggle to hire staff. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) also states that since vacancies fell to an all-time low in April to June 2020, they have increased by 945,000 in a little over two years.

The number of EU nationals employed in Britain in the three months to the end of June was also 8.7% lower than before the Covid-19 pandemic, compared with a 2.4% fall in the size of the total workforce, the ONS said.

Data for the charity sector mirrors these issues, but is in some instances worse. For example, the CIPD's quarterly Labour Market Outlook revealed 47% of employers have hard-to-fill vacancies, and in the voluntary sector the figure is closer to 53%.

‘Lack of sustainable funding makes recruitment particularly difficult’

Rebecca Young, lead policy and influencing manager at NCVO, said: “Attracting and retaining skilled and committed staff is vital for charities and we know that many charities are struggling with this. Low pay and short-term contracts driven by a lack of sustainable funding make recruitment particularly difficult in the charity sector.”

Young also said that there were some potential issues with volunteer recruitment.

“Working and volunteering for charities can be very rewarding, but we know volunteers and staff report poor wellbeing. Our Time Well Spent research showed that volunteers are currently experiencing high levels of anxiety and fatigue following the pandemic.

“As the pressure increases on charities to deliver more support, volunteer and staff burnout could add to the difficulty of recruiting and retaining people.”

Young added that the sector needs to see grants and contracts uplifted so that organisations can fund volunteer management and staff pay appropriately. 

‘Carers simply cannot afford to remain in the sector’

Recruitment challenges may be more pertinent at particular types of charity, such as those that work in social care, a relatively low paid sector.

Community Integrated Care is one of the UK’s biggest health and social care charities, and it has been grappling with a recruitment crisis.

Teresa Exelby, Community Integrated Care’s chief people officer told Civil Society News that “there is no doubt that the care sector is in the grip of a recruitment crisis” with more than 112,000 unfilled vacancies and staff turnover in the sector averaging 34% per annum. 

She explained: “This is only to be expected in a workforce where funding, and therefore wages, are so pared to the bone that often a few pence per hour can be incentive enough for somebody to change jobs within the sector.  

“Often, however, we lose them entirely; it’s no exaggeration to say that a new supermarket opening near one of our services strikes dread into the hearts of our service leaders.”

Exelby said the trend social care workers leaving roles was causing “a tragedy on a very human scale” for service users who had flourished with their support.

“But some carers simply cannot afford to remain in the sector and the impact of this is felt far beyond the immediate recipients of social care,” she said.

“Recognising that social care is as valuable and therefore worthy of the same wages and respect as these other publicly funded roles is the first step in reshaping the sector – but for this to happen the way in which the sector is funded must switch from local to central government.”

The charity is calling on the government to provide immediate funding to enable local authorities to fund pay increases in the wake of the dramatic rise in the cost of living.

“But longer term, a more sustainable approach must be adopted to ensure that care workers are not just rewarded but recognised and valued,” Exelby said.

This would include investment in training and qualifications, which will serve not just to attract more people into the sector, but provide a solid reason for them to remain here throughout their career, she said.

What can help?

Sector recruitment website CharityJob told Civil Society News it has certainly seen hiring become more challenging for charities over the past year in a UK-wide job-heavy, candidate-short market. 

They said: “We’re seeing record numbers of jobs posted on our site – in July this year we had 42% more than the average in 2019 and this combined with the UK labour shortage means that competition for the top talent is strong. 

“However, it’s still absolutely possible to hire someone great – recruiters just need to work a bit harder to stand out.”

Some of the advice it has been giving includes being as flexible as possible in recruitment, for example being open to candidates from outside the sector with transferable skills, as well as remote workers.

It also advised charities to review salaries, it has a sector benchmarking tool for this, as well as benefits and the flexible working you can offer.

CharityJob also said charities should ensure recruitment is inclusive by being careful of bias towards or against any particular groups of candidates in the language or imagery of adverts or job descriptions.

Potential candidates are also often discouraged by onerous job applications, a lack of transparency and unrealistic standards for entry. Indeed, several campaign groups such as Non Graduates Welcome and Show the Salary have highlighted such practices. 

In a difficult recruitment period, charities must do what they can to make sure they are hiring from as wide pool of applicants as possible.

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector, sign up to receive the Civil Society News daily bulletin here.


More on